I’m picking up, this month, where I left off last…with Vince Gill’s definition of Americana. ‘The beauty of this music’ he said ‘is that it doesn’t hinge itself on the results. To me, this is the place where you find the pure of heart’.
Americana is an amalgam of mostly blue-collar American roots music…country, bluegrass, folk and blues. Principally, it’s a song based, story telling genre, with a sense of history, often politically left of centre. The songs reflect the lives and the environment of the people who have written them, be they by Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash or Chris Knight. At the top level, the musicianship is an incomparable combination of brilliance and feel, and the recording process is honest…straight from the floor to the microphone, with the minimum amount of electronic or digital interference.
The music is made by mostly articulate and dedicated people who are realistic about the work involved in building a following over a long period of time, one fan at a time…musicians who deeply believe in the music they are making and are unwilling to compromise its integrity.
I love this music and am convinced that the majority of the artists I play on ‘Bob Harris Country’ (and on my Saturday night programme) would find a wider audience, if their music was more widely heard. Sounds obvious, I know. The fact that the Be Good Tanyas are playing the Albert Hall and other big venues on their current UK tour is stunning confirmation of this possibility. But Americana continues to struggle to gain any real commercial foothold. A license to print money it certainly isn’t.
Almost all of American radio is now owned by one huge corporation and it is becoming increasingly difficult for many of the artists I play to get exposure on any of the diminishing number of smaller, roots-friendly stations. Major-market radio is now playing only twelve to fourteen new records on rotation, where, five years ago, it was playing thirty or forty, so there is a tightening of available air-time that’s even affecting Music Row.
In Britain, we’ve just heard the truly disappointing announcement that the Soul Café is closing down and some of the recent Americana tours have been struggling with low attendance figures.
When promoter Paul Fenn was asked for advice about touring Britain by managers and artists at a recent Americana International panel in Nashville, his comment to them was bleak and to the point. ‘Don’t come’ he said.
He reasoned that too many acts have saturated an already small market place…that there is no profit to be made bringing musicians across the Atlantic to play on the small-venue circuit.
‘You’ll be sleeping on people’s floors’ he argued ‘and you won’t make any money’.
And he has got a point…if you hinge everything on results and if commercial success is the sole criteria. But I look at it a different way.
To my mind, it’s the artists who make the choice. For many of them, taking music on the road is their life. They realise they’re not going to be met by a limo at the airport and whisked off to a 5-star hotel. They know they’re not going to storm up the charts or build any kind of long-term pension plan. But they have a desire and a driving need to get their music in front of people and to take whatever life-adventures come with that experience. It can be tough, but they will tell you it’s worth it, if the belief is there.
All the financial margins are extremely tight but, compared to mainstream acts, costs are low. Many of the artists self-release their albums, or use the internet or small labels. All of them retain quality control. No big promotion budget, no big entourage and a frugal approach to the recording process means that every CD and every piece of merchandising sold (particularly from the ‘merch’ table at the back of the gig) is money going directly into their pocket.
What’s more, I know for certain that there’s an appreciative and pro-active audience out there. Sunny Sweeny, Idgy Vaughn and Lizanne Knott have all told me that their respective e-mail systems have crashed under the weight of the incredible reaction from the UK to plays of their tracks on my programmes. As a result, they’ve all been selling CD’s as fast as they can press them. I could give you loads of other examples of ‘under the radar’ artists far exceeding expectations. There’s an audience out there, alright…it’s a question of making contact with it.
And great albums just keep arriving. There’s the sheer class of Solomon Burke’s ‘Nashville’, produced by Buddy Miller, or punk-country from Kansas City via Camden Town, on the brilliant ‘Hold Yer Horses’ by The Piney Gir Big Country Roadshow. From Canada there’s ‘The Devil On A Bench In Stanley Park’ by Justin Rutledge and ‘Thumbelina’s One Night Stand’ by Melissa McClelland, produced by her husband Luke Doucet. And if you like old-time music, all acoustic, no percussion, try the charming ‘Shaken By A Low Sound’ by Crooked Still. All of them are CD’s of music that means something, played by musicians who really care.
As Vince Gill says…this is the place where you find the pure of heart. My pulse is racing at the very thought of it all.
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